Plane Crash In Kyrgyzstan Kills Dozens

Rescuers and investigators work at the crash site of a Boeing 737 passenger jet, 6 miles from Manas International Airport near the Kyrgyz capital Bishkek, few hours after the crash, early on Aug. 25, 2008.
AP Photo/Igor Kovalenko
Emergency workers combed through the wreckage of a passenger jet Monday after it crashed outside Kyrgyzstan's main airport, killing 65 people in an accident officials said was likely caused by technical problems.

The Boeing 737 was headed to the Iranian capital, Tehran, when it crashed Sunday near Bishkek's Manas International Airport, government officials said. Twenty-five people survived the accident.

The crew reported a technical malfunction only five minutes into the flight, and it crashed shortly as it headed back to the airport, Transport and Communications Minister Nurlan Salaimanov said.

The plane burst into flames upon hitting a field about seven miles outside the airport. Survivors said they had to kick open a rear exit in order to climb to safety from the smoke-filled jet.

Government spokeswoman Roza Daudova said the crash resulted from a loss of cabin pressure, but she offered no theories as to the cause of the decompression. The plane belonged to the Kyrgyz company Itek Air, which was banned from operating in European Union's airspace because of failure to meet safety and aviation standards.

A U.S. air base in the ex-Soviet republic of Kyrgyzstan supports operations in nearby Afghanistan, but Salaimanov ruled out terrorism as a cause of the crash.

"Without a doubt, this was not a terrorist act," Salaimanov told reporters Monday.

The plane carried 83 passengers - including members of a high school sports team - along with six crew members and an aviation official. Salaimanov said 25 people survived the crash - 11 Iranians and 14 Kyrgyz citizens - including the entire crew. Twenty-two were being treated in Bishkek hospitals and three people were sent home without serious injuries.

Daudova had earlier said that 68 people were killed and only 22 survived.

Iranian citizen Ali Hazemi said that shortly after the plane took off, the pilot announced that the jet was returning to Bishkek because of engine failure. After the plane turned around, it dove sharply and crashed within minutes.

"I felt a wave of hot air sweeping all over me and a terrible smell of burning," said Hazemi, 39, who was being treated in a Bishkek hospital. "I immediately unfastened the safety belt and fell to the floor. The air was cooler there and we could breath."

Hazemi found himself outside after another passenger managed to kick out a rear exit. He then returned to the burning jet to rescue his two sisters. "I can't believe I survived. It's a miracle."

Daudova said that passengers included 24 Kyrgyz citizens, 52 Iranians, three Kazakhs, two Canadians, one citizen of Turkey and one Chinese.

Salaimanov said the passengers included a basketball team from a Bishkek high school. But presidential adviser Tokon Mamytov said that the athletes were volleyball, not basketball players.

Emergency officials have already retrieved two black box flight recorders and investigators were trying to determine the cause of the crash.

Kyrgyzstan is a poor, mountainous country west of China. Bishkek, the capital and largest city, has a population about 1 million and is situated in the north of the Central Asian nation.

Manas International Airport is about 16 miles northwest of downtown.